Company Town
In Chinese Factory, Rhythms of Trade Replace Rural Life

By Leslie T. Chang
The Wall Street Journal
December 31, 2004

DONGGUAN, China -- On Saturday afternoons, the factory complex owned by the world's biggest shoe manufacturer shuts down. More than 70,000 workers, mostly young women from farming villages across China, pour out of the plants and into the dormitories and cafeterias, the paved streets and parks of the Yue Yuen industrial complex.

Yue Yuen is an entire universe that replaces the village world young migrants leave behind. Just like the farms from which these workers come, Yue Yuen has seasons and rhythms, but ones set by commercial dictates in countries thousands of miles away. Yue Yuen runs its own water-treatment systems and power stations. Within each factory compound are dormitories and canteens, post-office and phone-company branches, medical clinics and shops. One factory complex has a 100-bed hospital, a kindergarten, a 300-seat movie theater and a performance troupe. The city sometimes borrows the ladder from its fire truck, the tallest one in the area, to put out fires.

Zhang Qianqian, 21 years old, arrived at Yue Yuen three years ago. She says she left after 18 months because of conflicts with her boss and briefly returned home. She worked at an electronics factory last year before quitting to go home again, this time for her grandmother's 80th birthday. In February, she rejoined Yue Yuen. "I've moved here and there, and I always seem to end up in this factory," she says.

This is life for the millions of young Chinese who are powering their country's new industrial machine. In a community such as Yue Yuen, they find new lives full of hard work and long hours, but conditions far better than the sweatshops many imagine Chinese factories to be. They have migrated into China's cities in vast numbers and are creating models for manufacturing that outstrip even the factory towns of the West's Industrial Revolution.

One-third of the world's shoes are made in Guangdong, the province that borders Hong Kong. In this world, Yue Yuen is king. Established in 1989 by Pou Chen Corp. of Taiwan, Yue Yuen is the largest supplier to Nike, Adidas, Reebok and other brands. The company runs three factory complexes in Gaobu, a suburb of Dongguan, and is one of the biggest employers in the province.

Yue Yuen runs some factories that make the raw materials for shoes and other factories that cut, stitch and assemble these various parts. It employs designers to work with shoe companies to develop new styles. A Yue Yuen assembly line now takes 10 hours to make a shoe, from readying raw materials to having a finished product ready to ship, compared with 25 days four years ago.

China's new industrial might is powered by one of the largest migrations in human history. China now has 114 million migrants, people who left their rural villages to work in cities. Those who left in the 1980s and early 1990s headed into the unknown, often driven by a need for cash and a desire to earn money to build a house back home. Their work was still tied to the farming season. When they made enough money, many returned to the village for good.

For the new generation, migration is an accepted path to a better life. Younger and better-educated than their predecessors, many of today's rural migrants come straight from school and haven't farmed a day in their lives. They are eager to taste city life and spend money on themselves. They are more ambitious and less easily satisfied than their elders.

In a world in flux, Yue Yuen offers a stability that contrasts with the impermanence of migrant life. Many factories in the Pearl River Delta are unsafe and owe workers money. At Yue Yuen, the salary is average -- about $72 a month after deductions for room and board -- and the company has a reputation for hard workdays and harsh managers. But wages are paid on time. Work is capped at 11 hours a day and 60 hours a week, with Sundays off. Workers sleep 10 to a room with hot showers and adequate meals. Eighty-five percent of the workers at Yue Yuen are young women.

Over the years, a worker at Yue Yuen may quit and go home -- to see a sick relative, to have a baby -- and then return. Despite a 60% annual turnover rate, the factory is a stable place of employment for many. Zhou Yinfang joined in 1991 when she was 17. She met her husband in the factory, took time off to have two children and now manages 1,500 workers. "I would like to work here until I retire," says Ms. Zhou, her voice raspy from years of shouting over the machines.

Factory society divides along provincial lines, exaggerating the divisions outside. Workers from the same province stick together, speaking dialects others can't understand. Local stereotypes color hiring. Many factory bosses refuse to hire people from Henan because they are considered untrustworthy, while those from Anhui are perceived as overly sly.

Almost all the managers at Yue Yuen are migrants who started out on the factory floor. They're ranked by an intricate hierarchy. There are 13 grades of manager from trainee to managing director. There is a cafeteria exclusively for those in charge of a production line and another for chief supervisors, one step up. Only line leaders and above are permitted to live inside the factory with a child.

Life inside Yue Yuen's walls can be turbulent, with thousands of young people freed from the constraints of the village. Petty theft is rampant. Gangs, organized along provincial lines, coordinate with allies inside to smuggle shoe parts or rob workers of their pay. Love triangles and extramarital affairs are common, as are unplanned pregnancies and abortions. Last year, a female worker committed suicide because of a failed love affair, according to Luke Lee, a company executive in charge of workers' health and safety. Another gave birth in her dorm bathroom and threw her baby into the toilet, he says.

"We have 70,000 people. It is a city," says Mr. Lee. "Whatever problems a city has, we have in the factory."

* * *

The traditional Chinese calendar divides the year into 24 points based on the changing angle of the sun. The year begins with lichun, the start of spring in February, the time for sowing. The calendar dictates when to plant melons, vegetables and coarse cereals and when to harvest rice, fruits and cabbage. It predicts the best time to collect manure and fix fences for livestock.

The global calendar of shoe manufacturing also picks up in the spring. The machines gear up in March and quicken through June. In July, when the farmer's calendar urges people to move fast before the soil dries, the shoe industry falls into a summer lull. Orders drop to their lowest in August, with plants sometimes running at 20% capacity. In September and October, the machines run full-tilt again, while November and December are go-for-broke months to meet the Christmas rush.

In mid-June, the slow season of the global shoe cycle was beginning. On a Sunday morning, most of the tenants of Building J, Room 805 lounged in bed in their pajamas. They worked in the Yue Yuen No. 8 factory. The 210-square-foot room contained bunks that ran in two rows. The spaces under the beds were a tangle of high-heeled sandals, sneakers, and Hello Kitty flip-flops.

Zhang Qianqian had come to visit friends in Room 805 from a dorm down the hall. A stocky Anhui-province native, she wore jeans and a black sports watch. Ms. Zhang reminisced about mornings at home when her grandmother would make breakfast. "She calls me to come eat it and sometimes I am still sleeping. Then my father says to me, `You are lying in bed, you won't even come to eat breakfast your grandmother has made for you.' " She frowned. "At home they are always criticizing you."

The workers had a complex relationship with home. When they weren't there, they missed it. But when they spent time in their villages, they bored quickly and longed to return to the city.

The girls knew everything about how the factory worked. They knew their bosses' salaries and the subtle distinctions between every grade of manager. They had all seen plenty of theft. They were also proud of what they had done, however hard the living.

"Even if I had the means, I wouldn't want to go to college," said Jia Jimei, who had just walked into Room 805 from an early-morning shopping spree. She left her home in Henan province when she was in ninth grade.

"I would finish high school and start my own business," Ms. Jia said. She had scorn for people who only studied. "We come out as teenagers to work. We have more experience. We can do business. The college students, all they know how to do is to read books."

Ms. Zhang bragged that she had worked on all the famous brands: "Nike, Salomon, Adidas. I have worked on them all." She said she had worked on a pair of Nike shoes for a fashion model that sold for $600.

That drew an awed silence from the girls in the room. "Even if I had that much money, I would not spend it on a pair of shoes!" Ms. Jia said at last.

"At that level, it is not even money to them anymore," Ms. Zhang speculated.

Back in their villages, families try to pressure the girls. Send money home; don't get a boyfriend; marry sooner; come back. For the most part, the girls do as they please. Ms. Zhang says her parents don't know her phone number inside the factory. When she wanted to talk, she would call them; they were almost always home.

* * *

In July, the hottest season of the year according to the farmer's calendar, work at Yue Yuen slowed further. Many workers went home on leave, depending on which part of the shoe they made: Ms. Jia, who made soles, went home for a month; Ms. Zhang, who cut material to make shoe uppers, stayed on.

Ms. Zhang woke up past 10 a.m. one Saturday in late July. She put on jeans, a tank top and tan high heels with pointy toes, and walked downstairs into the blinding heat of day.

Outside the compound, the streets surrounding Yue Yuen teemed with opportunities for spending and self-improvement. The Hopeful Computer Training Center was full. A store offered a men's dress shirt for 20 yuan, or about $2.40. A mobile-phone shop featured the latest models. The Shangjiang City Health Station advertised one-minute pregnancy tests, abortions and treatment for venereal diseases.

"During the year, only these few months are a bit more fun," Ms. Zhang said. Inside a department store, she fingered a yellow high-heeled shoe with glittery pink hearts on the strap. "This is very fashionable this year," she said. Shopping was a favorite pastime now. In her first 18 months away from home, she had sent home almost $500 to help support a younger brother still in school. But she hadn't sent money home in a year.

"Food, clothes, going out to play, I don't know where the money goes," she said. "To hell with sending money home."

Out on the hot street she stopped to greet friends as she walked. She shouted at a girl walking by. "Qu Jimei! Where have you been?"

A girl with her hair dyed in red streaks said, "I'm going home."

Taken aback, Ms. Zhang held the girl's hand for a moment. "Well, good-bye," she said.

To be a migrant is to be surrounded by people leaving. "You meet so many friends in the factory, and then they go home," said Ms. Zhang.

She continued along the street. Between the stores lay alleys strewn with garbage. At the ends of the alleys was farmland. In fields of leafy green vegetables, older men and women labored under the glare of the sun.

* * *

When the girls at Yue Yuen go home, their parents want them to rest rather than working on the farm, believing they already work too hard. The girls keep farmers' hours, rising at dawn and turning in early. But they spend most of their waking hours watching television. In the countryside, time passes unmeasured.

At Yue Yuen, time is meted out in precise increments. One production line has 470 workers; an athletic shoe may pass through 200 stations. Workers in the cutting department stamp sheets of mesh fabric into pieces. Stitchers sew logos and shoelace eyelets onto these pieces to make the shoe upper. Stock fitters glue layers of rubber and plastic to make the sole. Assemblers press the sole and upper together, insert a foot-shaped plastic mold, called a last, and glue the two parts together. A machine applies 88 pounds of pressure to each shoe. Workers remove the lasts, check for flaws, and pack the shoes in boxes. Each shoe has a "Made in China" label on its tongue. Yue Yuen has 173 production lines in factories throughout China, each turning out 2,000 pairs of sneakers a day.

In its first decade, Yue Yuen often worked employees through midnight with few days off. But in the late 1990s, customers such as Nike Inc. and Adidas Salomon AG pushed suppliers to improve worker conditions. Yue Yuen switched to an 11-hour workday and gave employees Sundays off. It established a counseling center for questions and complaints. It improved safety measures and abolished military-style calisthenics and uniforms.

The Western companies that pushed factories to improve conditions also demanded lower prices. In 2001, Adidas initiated a program at Yue Yuen to increase efficiency. Workers say they work fewer hours but are more exhausted because tasks are precisely parceled out to ensure almost no downtime. Brands now give factories 30 days to deliver an order; three years ago it was 60 days; a decade back it was 90. Orders are getting smaller, allowing designers to respond more rapidly when fashions change.

There is a plastic sign in front of every station noting how many seconds it takes that worker to complete a task. Employees are timed by supervisors with stopwatches. Productivity at Yue Yuen is up 10% in the past three years. An Adidas investigation into the impact of its program found that workers initially felt more stress but over time got used to it.

* * *

August is the time to replant autumn vegetables. Inside Yue Yuen, a new season had begun: The long approach to Christmas. After the easy rhythms of summer, workers worked overtime every weekday and all day Saturday.

"I have the worst headache," moaned Ms. Zhang on a Sunday morning early that month. "This is supposed to be the low season, but we have so many orders." It had been her 22nd birthday the day before. She had planned to celebrate with a friend but instead had to work.

Down the hall in Room 805, Ms. Jia had returned from her time at home. She was listless and unsmiling. "I thought about not returning," she said. "But there is nothing to do at home."

Her life in the factory was about to be rearranged. Once a year, Yue Yuen reassigns workers to new dorms to ensure that production teams live together. "We already have friends here," Ms. Jia said. "Now there is a chance we will all be scattered again."

The transfers came later that month. Girls who had been together every day now didn't know how to find each other. Many lost touch for good. They were working overtime every day. New workers were still arriving.

After payday in August, Ms. Zhang suddenly left the factory. Her roommates didn't know where she had gone. According to the factory, she was still registered as working there. Her sudden disappearance seemed to mock the precise system of schedules that had ordered life at Yue Yuen so well.

* * *

Opposite the factory entrance, down a dirt road lined with restaurant stalls, is a neighborhood of apartment buildings faced in red tile. The doors to the apartments are pieces of sheet metal.

On a Sunday afternoon in mid-October, Ms. Zhang materialized here. She was visiting a friend named Ge Li, a fellow Anhui native -- and former Yue Yuen worker -- living with her boyfriend in a single-room apartment. "It's not fun anymore," was all Ms. Zhang said about why she had left. She was thinking of going home, she said, or finding a job at a new factory.

In the weeks that followed, production pressures in the factory continued to build. In the countryside, it was lidong, the beginning of winter, the time to fix fences. Ms. Zhang continued to drift; her friends said they didn't know what she was planning to do.

In Ms. Zhang's old dorm at the factory, a roommate, Zhao Juan, seemed unmoved by her friend's departure. She was 19 and had worked at Yue Yuen for two years. She once quit to go home but recently returned. "A lot of people leave," she said. "But they all end up coming back to Yue Yuen."

 
 
KEVIN WOO